When I was really young, my mom used to collage all of our furniture," Cassie McNeil recalls. "I grew up in the mountains above Lyons, in a cabin where there's no electricity or running water. My mom would collage every piece of furniture in my room. Little pictures and rubber cement — that's how I started. She would go through a phase where she thought she was a mermaid, and she would paint mermaids on everything.
"I had a really weird childhood," McNeil admits. "I've always been really weird because of that. I never was cool or fit in to anything. For whatever reason, we didn't watch TV in the mountains. I had a really good imagination. I don't know if it was because of my upbringing or just my personality, but I've always been really philosophical, so that influenced my lyrics, my music and my lifestyle."
McNeil makes up half of the band Force Publique, which she formed last year with James Wayne, a schoolmate of hers from Boulder whom she met through mutual friends. Before meeting Wayne, McNeil played guitar in what she describes as an all-girl classic-rock band called the Gypsy Fembots. The band played some shows at a various venues around town, including the Toad Tavern and the Gothic, but came to an end before too long because, as McNeil puts it, "There was no one there at any of our shows. Ever."
Force Publique, Afterdark Music Festival, with Pictureplane, CacheFlowe, School Knights and more, 6 p.m. Friday, August 26, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $6-$12, 303-291-1007.
McNeil's modest and eccentric upbringing was reflected in her music, particularly early on. Growing up, her tastes were shaped in part by her father, a musician who played in a psychedelic blues band. "I would only listen specifically to blues music for most of my adolescence," McNeil recalls. As a result, she says, "I got too technical with music. I used to play guitar ten hours a day, and I would try to have one-minute guitar solos in all of our songs. Then I just realized that I didn't feel enough from the direction of music I was going to. I guess my bridge from blues to more emotional music was Joy Division. I wanted to express something more than show off."
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For his part, Wayne had developed his own fondness for the highly influential post-punk band led by the late Ian Curtis. "I had heard a lot about them, and I never really listened to their music before," Wayne reflects. "I looked into it four or five years ago and got really into it after I discovered it — I guess just word-of-mouth. Then I got into that whole post-punk style of music. It sounds really modern to me. It sounds sort of like the time we're living in, even though it came out thirty years ago. There's a dystopian feel to it that I relate to a lot."
That same relatability can be credited for inspiring Wayne and McNeil to name their band Force Publique. Despite the fact that the moniker invokes the name of an infamous institution established in the Belgian Congo of the 1800s, the handle wasn't necessarily meant to be overtly political. McNeil simply connected to the underlying concept of "public force."
"It described how the government oppressed the people of that area and made them turn against each other," notes McNeil. "To me, that's a really interesting idea, that a force could make people in the same situations go against each other. I guess at the moment when we decided to make this music, I was at a really corporate job, and it made me question capitalism a lot, and so I was thinking about all of these people in the same situation, who are working for someone else instead of working together. Maybe I was just feeling desperate at that moment, in that situation, and I related to it."
Folks are likely to experience a similar sensation upon first hearing Force Publique's own dark, emotive synth-pop. Just the same, while there are definite sonic and artistic links to bands like Joy Division and its successor, New Order, as well as acts inspired by that group, like the Vanishing and the Faint, Force Publique sounds like its music was crafted well before McNeil and Wayne even became aware of the influences contained deep in the DNA of some of their peers.
This organic, seemingly uncalculated honesty in the music most likely accounts for why the outfit's stock has risen so steadily. For the better part of the past year, the duo has been making a name for itself, winning fans over with a highly visual live show as well as a series of self-recorded singles that have gained positive notice and contributed to the gradually swelling buzz. From the onset, the band has incorporated a strong visual element into both its shows and its releases. Live, Wayne takes silent-movie footage from YouTube and recontextualizes it to suit the music, so that the audience has more visual stimulus than just two musicians focused on playing. And the group's singles bear equally captivating imagery, with collages created by McNeil, whose hauntingly melodic voice is the thread that ties the whole project together.
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"I've been singing for such a long time, it's just whatever comes out," McNeil reveals. "First I started off with Beyoncé in seventh grade, and then it got to Robert Plant, and now it's neither. I just try to sing like myself [laughs]. I do think I have more of a range because of those two influences. I learned how to sing better technically. Singing is hard to be influenced by, because everyone has a unique voice. You can't really be influenced by Robert Plant and then sing like Robert Plant and have it be normal."
"A lot of people try to do the Ian Curtis voice," adds Wayne, "and I don't like hearing that."
"I don't think anyone should try to sing like anyone else," concludes McNeil. "It's pretty weird to me. It's like trying to talk like someone else."
Crafting a voice of one's own is challenging, but Force Publique continues to make some noteworthy strides. With keen instincts and an eye toward further honing their sound, McNeil and Wayne recently added live percussion from Alex Anderson of ManCub, which has added a layer of organic dynamism to the music, pulling together the pair's collage of influences even more than before.